No end to coronavirus travel ban

Respite increasingly unlikely as Australia moves into pandemic mode

February 27, 2020

Australia has again balked at easing travel restrictions on Chinese students, after medical officials raised hopes of a relaxation.

In a 26 February statement, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) urged the government to consider a “staged return” of entry rights for “specified cohorts of Chinese students…subject to appropriate screening, quarantine and monitoring”.

The AHPPC cited the decreasing number of new coronavirus cases reported in China, and Australia’s success in minimising local infections. “A significant number of students from China have spent 14 or more days in third countries and have arrived in Australia…with no cases detected,” it added.

The statement prompted speculation that Australia may open the door to a relatively small number of mainland Chinese students - PhD candidates from outside Hubei province, for example - following the government’s weekend decision to admit some Chinese high school students. But in a 27 February press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ruled out any more “carve outs” of the travel ban.

Mr Morrison said the government expected a pandemic to be declared imminently, and was already operating on that basis. He said the travel ban would continue to be reviewed each week.

The decision reduces the likelihood that many thousands of students will arrive on campus ahead of semester one deadlines imposed by some Australian universities, which face massive disruption and a catastrophic loss of revenue as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Some 65,800 students are yet to present at the 10 Australian universities with the highest Chinese enrolments, according to data being circulated on the social media platform WeChat, with the institutions facing potential combined losses of A$1.21 billion (£614 million) from forfeited tuition fees for first semester classes.

Even if the travel ban is lifted, students can expect many practical hurdles in reaching Australia - not least the difficulty of finding flights, after commercial airlines suspended their China services.

Students may also struggle to secure visas, after China suspended English language tests that many take to meet visa requirements. And hundreds have had valid travel plans interrupted or thwarted by “systems errors” committed by Australia’s Home Affairs department.

In the latest “bungle” reported by The Australian newspaper, officials failed to register students on a government computer platform used by airlines to check the validity of passengers’ visas.

Universities privately doubt their capacity to ensure students’ compliance with requirements to self-isolate for a fortnight after arriving in Australia. Some educators also harbour concerns about the “third country” option utilised by thousands of students, who are satisfying entry requirements by spending a fortnight in neighbouring nations between leaving China and reaching Australia.

This approach has proven popular, with package tours reportedly being marketed via Cambodia. Some Australian universities are offering financial assistance to enrolees who have taken such routes, characterising it as a goodwill gesture to support students acting of their own volition.

But critics stress the risk of students contracting the coronavirus during their third country sojourns. The AHPPC said it had concerns about Thailand, one of the most popular transit countries, because of the “lower than expected numbers of cases” reported there.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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